Lots of trail magic in Eastern MN, between trail volunteers and random passersby. I had a stretch of nightly hosting, and made a couple new friends. Including Henry, whom gave me a lift back into town during some mild rain wherein we played frisbee golf, ate mango, and talked about mysticism. From town (Fergus Falls) I met up with a friend from home, who was in school nearby at Morris and spent a weekend with him. Which included sorta low-key crashing his friends’ wedding, (that makes two for those of you counting at home) and gorging myself on cupcakes that nobody else seemed to be eating. Met a guy named Dale right on near the border with North Dakota, and after passing me several times just wandering down the road who after getting shot down offering me rides, ended up taking me in for a night. He had a rad Lego collection set up in his living room and a little wooded area with a fireplace that was all done up with Xmas lights and such. In the morning we stopped into his shop where we were greeted by a whole bunch of friendly farm kittens, not quite to the extent as I had seen in OH, but pleasant as all get out nonetheless.
North Dakota surprised me with how well punctuated it is, however the roadwalks do drag on endlessly and some of the trail seems to be almost through people’s backyards, which can be a little awkward. The lack of shade led me to hike long into the nights, and spend my days in dry shady culverts. The non-corrugated ones are especially nice, although in a pinch you can sit just outside on the leeward side from the sun. The empty night roads make for a pleasant trek, featuring wide open to the expanses with low horizon lines all around, and populated only by occasional trees, shrub, or ditch. While Its doubtful I would’ve been hassled while sleeping beside the road, I was thankful for my tent’s dark green shade, which likely drew less attention as I tore down camp in the mornings. The days I did hike during daylight hours were brutally hot, retaining much of that Minnesotan Humidity from just across the border. I certainly am a child of winter.
Roasting in the sun, if you zoom in you can read the 106 F on my watch, and see the blank horizons beyond. The Shirt is wet with seat, otherwise the white salt stains would be showing up, emanating from the sternum strap in particular. Luckily (not really, I am sure it was by design.) water was generally available, as the trail tracks the Sheyenne River pretty closely. There is a big gap between the Sheyenne and New Rockford where the Trail picks up the McClusky Canal, hitching back and forth to town for water is pretty weird, and people seem almost a little offended when you ask to get dropped off in the middle of nowhere, but then again, I don’t always jump to explain what I am up to either.
The Border Route Trail section, immediately after the Superior Hiking Trail, brought me my dusting of late MN snow. While I had just come off trail to resupply; Nemo was dropping one of our friends off to SoBo the SHT, so we kicked it for a night and he brought me a ration box. Found several unopened beers in the woods, still good even; not in the same place either, like 3 different beers in 3 different places. Hope I didn’t wreck someone’s caches for a drunken FKT attempt… Saw lots of wild life up close, all the baby animals that aren’t afraid of people, or are otherwise foolish. From the moose at a safe distance, to grouse chicks and fawns that try to hide right in the center of the trail. (or worse, under the arch of my boot.) Met Problem Bear briefly on the Kekekabic trail, He’s Triple Crowner who attempted the NCT east bound in 2016. I think he got off in MI around when the trail gets overly civilized. People who can really relate to long distance hiking are pretty rare the farther you get from the Triple Crown Trails, so I think we both enjoyed taking an hour to commiserate.
I caught both the BRT and Kek before many of the volunteers had been out for the heavy trail maintenance necessary. Many dead-falls and Aspen were bent across the trails; likely a hold over from heavy snows or a fall windstorm; slowing progress about as well as any of the steep elevation jumps of the AT and the LT, as following the trail became less walking and more tracing a tread path through a thicket that grows sideways. Leaving the Kek and the boundary waters I was able to connect with a group of volunteers who put me up in a boy scout camp near the Kek’s terminus, and also fed me pretty decent before I set off on the next decent road section. MN was good to me, even on roads; people offered me rides, food and drink multiple times a day between Ely and my next trail section just after Grand Rapids. (These great lakes states seem to share town names pretty frequently…) Good to have “Minnesota Nice” be more true than just a series of passive aggressive jokes.
This road section is about when I really got on top of this iteration of the blog, and I think when I got onto instagram. The next section of established trail is well supported by trail volunteers and came and went quite breezily. Here I found my first morel mushrooms, which at the time I thought were quite sizable, as well this section was where I had to step over a fawn that failed its hide check. (or maybe just balance…) I ran into an encryption error, and accidentally erased all the pictures I took in Minnesota to this point, so the ones that have made it here I have found because as luck would have it; I didn’t back up anything in that time, but I did transfer files around a little so there were a few survivors. You’d think that afterwards I would’ve learned my lesson and developed good habits around back-ups and data management, but I actually recently had another near catastrophe… maybe I ought to get around to that…
While still quite early for the Superior Hiking Trail’s season, my delays found me on trail with atleast one other thru hiker according to the registers. A little slack packing out ofy parent’s cottage in duluth, compliments of my father, (who seems to like slack packing quite a bit, seeing as he offers to do so not infrequently.) and I was back up to speed. The eastern most 400 miles of the NCT in MN are truly a joy; minimal roadwalking enough elevation change to stave off boredom, without being particularly difficult, plentiful and beautiful waterways. I may be a bit biased, as the SHT was my first thru-hike, and is in my home state, but this is the best section of the NCT; barring maybe the High Peaks area of the Adirondaks, which was nowhere near as long, but more spectacular, and not the official NCT route.
After the long and lonesome winter, having the occasional company at camp was nice, on trail as well although I seldom stop to chat for long. I passed several different trail crews all out for their first outings of the season, and even met Lars again and nighted with his family near Oberg Mt. (Which was fortunate, as I forgot my trekking poles with him when he ferried my back to the Twin Cities.) Shortly thereafter I happened to camp with another thru hiker which I hadn’t quite expected. I figured I would probably pass them at night while they were camped out. It was their first thru, and they were having some minor struggles regarding a hiking partner getting back on trail after having gotten hurt. I think I shared some cookies with them, hope they managed to finish
The atmosphere this time through the SHT was wholly different from my previous thru, in which it was much drearier, was also off season. I don’t recall this bridge being as sketchy then (heard they’ve already fixed it even) but I have a kind of fixation on failing trail infrastructure. When I previously passed thru, overcast skies lent a certain mystique to the riverwalks. Low visibility lent the rock formations additional gravitas, as they disappear into fog only 10 feet away. This time I had few clouds, although for a couple days they showed up bearing a dusting of snow in the far north. I’ll count that, and with it I had snow in every state of the NCT save ND.
Jetting thru WI’s 200 miles in 6 days neither left room for error, nor was a section prone to it, with a gentle elevation profile and overall easy to follow tread. Its greatest challenges came in the mundane challenge of mustering quickly in the morning and bedding down quickly at night. Such sections aren’t the most interesting to recall as a narrative, but are often wonderful in the moments; a simple pleasure, wherein talents learned in previous hardship aren’t tested, but exercised. Hiking the North woods in the spring, preseason to the more crowded summer offers cushier conditions than I think most expect. Cool, but not bitter cold temps, combined with longer daylight hours, keep you up and moving in the day and resting easily at night. The bugs that swarm from the upper Midwest’s many waterways aren’t out yet in any significant force. The woods are most often empty of people, as schools are still in session and vacation season is a ways off; and aside from turkey, hunting seasons are closed. Autumn is still my favorite time to be outside, but trading the foliage for more daylight, and less consideration for being downrange of hunters doesn’t seem unfair at all.
None of that is to say that my way through WI was wholly unremarkable, I trudged long into the night to find shelters that were perhaps overly ambitious targets. Once of which was a small hardly optimally shaped building with a door, and made up my first night in the state. The next, and last was more a standard Adirondack style shelter, but with columns closely spaced instead of wall near the open end, as an architectural flourish to an otherwise simple building. Or finding myself sleeping beside a stream underneath a low clearance bridge, having left the day unplanned and ending with miles of road before the next bit of trail, without knowing if camping is even permitted near that trail head. Or getting mixed results hoping for shortcuts by following jeep trails.
Spring thaw was in full effect as I tromped thru WI, as the contrast between these pictures show. I’m sure I would’ve encountered more places where the trail becomes a pond, had off trail section of WI been weighted more towards the end, but as it was I found myself practically snowshoeing into the state and wading out into Jay Cooke. Where I got spirited away by my friend Lars, first back to his cabin, and then back home to the Cities to have myself a bit of a spring break. I seem to diverge from hiking quarterly, and then inevitably get delayed in getting back to trail, as I often put myself at the mercy of whatever cheap or free transport I can find. (Friends and Family have been super helpful on this front, although I suspect some foul play has perhaps been involved in some of my delays.)
I mostly travel went without incident. Something that should perhaps be surprising, given how many icy tree bridges I balance beam across. (This didn’t fail me until near Donner Pass, CA actually. So I call that a win.) However my worst accident of the North Country Trail came while travelling on what I assume is regularly an (unmaintained?) jeep trail, or perhaps snowmobile route, I broke through ice, into a stream that had covertly washed out part of the road. Luckily landing only about thigh to waist deep in water, but getting pretty wet up to my stomach or chest. The kicker being that it happened while snowshoeing. Which proves exceptionally unwieldy in deep and rushing water. This delayed my escape to dry snow, so I couldn’t waste any time, and decided to press on for the day. Fueling myself with the necessity of a far away ration, and the possibility of inadequate food stores. A hint of warmth returned to my legs before nightfall, but a sense of existential cold lingered for a few days, settling in my extremeties. I camped near a stream, off a back road, where I was happily able to maintain immediate self sufficiency. Streams seem to have a moderating effect on the surrounding tempuratures; or atleast I have convicinced myself as such, which within limits may even be more important. I get by on positing minor factors that may be aiding me in the face of obvious detrimental factors more often than I’d care to admit.
I had been receiving the occasional warning about a long unmaintained section of trail in the second half of the UP; which I seemed to navigate deftly as I am not wholly sure where exactly it was… although there were many sections that were slowed by white-out, such that blazed painted on trees aren’t visible at a useful distance. Durring where I thought it had been I was able to find blazes semi regularly or otherwise follow what seemed like an established path. Although quite a few little stream crossings required a bit of walking up or down stream seeking a suitable fallen tree to improvise myself a bridge with. The Porkies, whom I had been hyped up for, did not quite live up to the hype; though it may have been due to them missing such excitement as taking an unexpected swim, or just being foggy my whole visit. I was pleasantly surpised to find they had backcountry huts, then dissapointed to find them lock, then rode the rollercoaster of trail emotion back up when their privies were unlocked! Leaving the Porkies, signs signs of civilization became increasingly recent, until I was in small state parks, and with a long final thaw began the long roadwalk out of MI after 1150 or so miles. Making it the longest state at the time; only to be beaten later by CA, which would end up exceeding 1800 miles.
Freezes and thaws continued to define my way thru MI’s Upper Peninsula. Spring was trying its hardest, its success was somewhat limited to a near permanent overcast cloud cover, and the occasional flooded trail section. The swings between quality of trail maintenance in the UP is immense; from blazes marked on seemingly alternating trees, to unmarked sections where I could never be quite sure I had just begun cross country travel. I certainly spent more milage of the UP moving cross country, sans trail, than any other bit the trip I have thus far. Both routing around flooded sections, finding stable ice or tree bridges for flooding creek crossings, or just having lost trail.
Hitting the beaches of Superior was one of my NCT high points. The massive lake really moderated the temperature nearby, and gave me my first clean view to the horizon since the endless farmlands of OH. The whole of the NCT as it keeps to Lake Superior’s perimeter is worth the hike in lieu of committing to a full thru-hike attempt. (Mile for mile it’d maybe be most rewarding to do Ely, MN to Lowell, MI)
In Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, I met my first backpacker on trail for the year. It was still a pretty isolated event, the next wouldn’t be for a month, till I had made it onto the Superior Hiking Trail in MN. Heading westward thru the UP also heralded a return of shelters, with some pretty interesting ones tucked about the woods. (Pictures of these may come later, as I seem to have about a month long gap in pictures onboard. Hopefully I backed them up at some point.) from the locked shelters in the Porcupine Mountains, to sitting alongside abandoned (historical) Old Victoria. Some must’ve been built recently, or atleast repaired, as they were permeated with the smell of fresh cut wood. A nice thing in the moment, but frequently serving to return my own smell to my consciousness upon my exit.
Note: This was supposed to go up last week, but I accidentally didn’t set it to publish before leaving town to hike to Badwater Basin.
Michigan seems to be the heart of the NCT, the NCTA is headquartered there, and I had near constant contact with trail volunteers for much of the state. It should be noted however that I wasn’t in touch at all throughout OH, PA, or NY, so its hardly a complete sample. The first bit of real harsh winter was mostly mitigated by them, although slack packing daylight hours in winter does cut the mileage just by virtue of not holding myself to 13+ hours a day of trudging. One of my longer stays was with my Aunt Kim, who breeds puppies on the side. She mostly deals with smaller breeds, but she has an enormous dog named Bao, that I spent a couple zeros debating… physically. I somehow don’t have many pictures from this period of my trip, probably due to cold, photographic apathy, negligence, or having written off this blog as untenable. So while this is still the Internet, I have to withhold animal photos. (Sorry)
The thaw is often worse than the freeze, and such was the case, many times on the NCT. Leading up to crossing Mighty Mac we had a pretty good thaw, enough that I thought winter might be over and I would have to zip thru to ND quickly if I wanted to avoid the mosquitos of the north woods. Mostly it lead to me charging across breaking ice in wilderness state park over a flooded section of trail. Not the main route, I took a slightly more southern route thru the park to try and check out their shelter. Didn’t find it, got wet up to my thighs anyways. I’ll call that a win for adventure, and a loss for me. It could’ve been a lot worse though, in almost typical MI fashion I was spontaneously rescued by a trail volunteer’s walking partner. (Thanks Nancy, that one would’ve been terrible for a week.)
Also around this time, I had my second birthday on trail. It was much nicer than the first, In which I spent a cold day, hiking up a steep hill to a clouded out fire tower, while being pretty sick, but that is no longer either here nor there. This one was spent with Yorkshire Pudding and people who have a suspiciously similar last name to mine. (Thanks Bob and Patti!)